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There is a lot of dissatisfaction with one of Maine’s electric utilities — Central Maine Power Co. The company, which provides electricity to about half of Maine’s electric users, has ranked near the bottom in customer satisfaction and reliability in recent years. Its proposal to build a transmission line across western Maine, as part of a project to bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts and the New England power grid, was roundly rejected by the state’s voters in November.
This dissatisfaction has spurred an ongoing effort to create a consumer-owned utility to take over the assets of CMP and the state’s other large utility, Versant Power. An attempt to get this issue on the ballot has been pushed until next year after backers failed to gather the needed signatures to make the 2022 ballot.
There is a better, less disruptive, way to improve reliability and service for many of the state’s electricity customers. The Maine Public Utilities Commission can — and should — require utilities to meet performance standards, and penalize them if they do not.
Gov. Janet Mills has formalized this thinking in a bill that was unveiled last week.
The bill unveiled last Wednesday would require the Public Utilities Commission to establish minimum standards for quarterly performance. A utility that fails to meet benchmarks for two consecutive quarters could be fined up to $1 million or 10 percent of revenue. This money would go toward reducing energy costs for low-income customers.
Continued poor performance could result in the utility being dismantled and sold to another utility or to make way for a “consumer-owned, quasi-municipal corporation.”
The governor’s bill is clearly a search for middle ground after she criticized CMP for its customer service and its initial push to continue construction of the transmission line rejected by voters in November, but also vetoed a bill that would have asked voters to authorize a consumer takeover of the utility.
The governor’s bill would also allow the utilities commission to undertake financial audits of utilities to look for disparities between reported costs and the rates charged to customers.
It would also require utilities to prepare a plan for addressing expected impacts of climate change, including the impacts on their infrastructure.
The proposal also beefs up whistleblower protections.
“Whether it’s poor customer service, billing problems, or extended power outages, the issues experienced by Maine people over the past several years have made clear that Maine doesn’t have the tools it needs to hold our utilities accountable. It’s time for that to change,” Mills said in a statement.
The utilities commission already has the power to financially penalize utilities but it infrequently does so. This bill would formalize performance standards and the consequences for failing to meet them.
In 2019, the commission staff recommended that CMP’s profit be cut because of a string of problems, including slow power restoration after a 2017 storm and problems with a new billing system. In early 2020, the utilities commission voted to reduce the company’s profits by $10 million because of poor performance. The commission also ordered the company to compensate customers for billing errors.
The staff has recommended that the penalty be lifted because CMP has since met performance metrics, although the staff said it was unclear if the improvements would be sustained.
Rep. Seth Berry, the legislator who has long spearheaded the push for a consumer-owned utility, called the governor’s bill “a step forward.” He said he’d like to see the bill amended to include stronger mechanisms to ensure electricity costs remain affordable, and to improve cybersecurity and climate change responses. Additions like this would strengthen the bill.
Electric utilities in Maine are essentially given monopolies to deliver power — they don’t generate it — to hundreds of thousands of Maine homes and businesses. They are generally granted rate increases when they seek them. In exchange for this lucrative business deal, it is reasonable for the state to require that the utilities consistently meet service standards for electricity delivery and billing, and that climate change and cybersecurity mitigation become a priority.
The governor’s legislation is an important step in this direction.